Justia U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Criminal Law

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In 2005, off-duty police officer Flomo was shot to death while sitting in his car in North Philadelphia. The shooting occurred after Flomo had stopped his car and solicited Bowens, a prostitute and Slaughter’s and Johnson’s long-time drug customer. Johnson and Slaughter were charged with murder based on witness identifications and forensic testimony. A jury acquitted both defendants of first-degree murder, but convicted Slaughter on third-degree murder and criminal conspiracy. It failed to reach a verdict on remaining charges as to Johnson. At Johnson’s retrial, the prosecution introduced a statement that Slaughter had given police that implicated Johnson, in violation of Johnson’s Sixth Amendment right to confront witnesses. A jury found Johnson guilty of third-degree murder and criminal conspiracy; he was sentenced to consecutive prison terms of 20-40 years and 10-20 years. After unsuccessful state post-conviction proceedings, Johnson unsuccessfully sought federal habeas relief, based on the introduction of that statement and the prosecutor’s calling Slaughter to testify knowing that Slaughter would invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege. The Third Circuit affirmed. denial of Johnson’s habeas petition, reasoning that Slaughter’s statement was cumulative so that Johnson could not show prejudice and that the prosecutor did not necessarily know that Slaughter would invoke the Fifth Amendment. View "Johnson v. Lamas" on Justia Law

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In 1998, McKernan was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his former roommate, Gibson. McKernan admitted to hitting Gibson with a bat but claimed that it was self-defense and that Gibson’s injuries arose from Gibson hitting his head on the curb. During McKernan’s bench trial, after the Commonwealth had rested but before the defense had started its case-in-chief, the judge called the victim’s mother, his brother, the prosecutor, and defense counsel, into her robing room. McKernan was not present. The meeting was transcribed. The judge discussed online criticism of her decisions, including statements on the Gibsons’ website, and stated that she “want[ed] to make sure that you folks are happy with me.” Defense counsel did not object. The judge and Gibson’s brother agreed that the judge could “redline” the website. After conferring with McKernan, defense counsel told the judge and prosecutor that his client had “concerns” because “he thinks that you may be constrained to lean over backwards,” but advised McKernan to continue before the judge. After exhausting state remedies, McKernan filed an unsuccessful federal habeas petition. The Third Circuit reversed the denial of relief, finding that the state courts unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent as to whether McKernan’s trial counsel was ineffective for failing to seek and for advising McKernan not to seek the judge’s recusal. View "McKernan v. Superintendent Smithfield SCI" on Justia Law

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Before his trial for conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 846, Jackson unsuccessfully moved to suppress evidence of coconspirators’ cellphone calls intercepted as authorized by court orders. The interceptions, pursuant to Title III of the federal Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968, comprised a significant amount of the trial evidence, though Jackson was a participant in only a few calls. Intercepted calls were placed and received outside Pennsylvania, but concerned, in part, cocaine trafficking in Pennsylvania. A Pennsylvania state court had authorized wiretaps sought by state law enforcement officers and information obtained from those wiretaps was used in affidavits when federal wiretap orders were sought. Jackson argued that the state court lacked jurisdiction to permit the underlying wiretaps of cellphones outside of Pennsylvania. The Third Circuit affirmed Jackson’s conviction, upholding the denial of the motion to suppress; admission of a case agent’s testimony interpreting the contents of telephone calls; admission of co-conspirators’ testimony about their convictions and guilty pleas for the same crime; and the prosecutor’s mention of a co-conspirator’s Fifth Amendment right not to testify when she was prompted to identify the evidentiary rule that permitted the admission into evidence of what otherwise would have been inadmissible hearsay. View "United States v. Jackson" on Justia Law

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Brown and others were charged in a 69-count indictment with crimes related to multiple conspiracies to purchase, transport, and distribute cocaine as part of an enterprise organized by Tapia, a Virgin Islands law enforcement officer. Only Brown and Hill proceeded to trial. Although both were connected to the enterprise, there was no allegation that the two conspired with one another. Brown communicated with and helped deliver cocaine to Tapia, while Hill assisted in the subsequent transportation of the purchased cocaine. Before trial, the court observed that, “[w]hile initially there was an overarching conspiracy, there is none now. And nothing that ties the two defendants together … [o]ut of an abundance of caution,” the court decided to impanel two juries. Counsel agreed. His jury convicted Brown for using a communication to facilitate a drug crime, 21 U.S.C. 843(b); (d)(1); 18 U.S.C. 2. He was acquitted on nine other counts. The court calculated the guideline range of imprisonment as 78-97 months. Because the minimum term under the guidelines exceeded the statutory maximum sentence, the court sentenced Brown to 48 months. Brown did not object. The Third Circuit affirmed, rejecting arguments that the use of dual juries violated Brown’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights and that the sentencing court should have solicited objections. View "United States v. Brown" on Justia Law
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Douglas was charged with conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute five kilograms or more of cocaine, 21 U.S.C. 846, and conspiracy to engage in money laundering, 18 U.S.C. 1956(h). While on bail, Douglas booked a flight to Jamaica. The district court did not revoke his bail. Douglas failed to appear for the first day of trial. The next day he submitted documents showing that he had been admitted to the emergency room, with chest pain. Douglas’s EKG revealed possible heart blockage. His blood tests indicated he had an abnormal white blood cell count and an elevated enzyme level that can indicate a heart attack. The court stated that “[t]here’s no solid evidence … that he was suffering from a medical condition.” He was convicted. The PSR recommended that Douglas be held responsible for 450 kilograms of cocaine; a two-level enhancement because Douglas had been convicted of conspiracy to engage in money laundering; a two-level enhancement for abuse of a position of trust; and a two-level enhancement for obstruction of justice, resulting in a Guidelines sentence of life imprisonment. The court noted testimony that Douglas smuggled 10-13 kilograms of cocaine, 40-50 times, that Douglas used his airport security clearance, and Douglas’s failure to appear, and imposed a sentence of 240 months’ imprisonment. The Third Circuit upheld the court’s conclusion regarding drug quantity and its application of the enhancement for abuse of a position of trust, but reversed the enhancement for obstruction of justice. View "United States v. Douglas" on Justia Law
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Plaintiffs, inmates in the custody of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, were each sentenced to death and housed on the death row of his respective institution. Eventually, their death sentences were vacated, but several years elapsed before they were resentenced to life without parole. In the interim, Plaintiffs spent several years in the solitary confinement of death row. They sought damages, alleging violation of their Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process by continuing to subject them to the deprivations of solitary confinement on death row without meaningful review of their placements after their death sentences had been vacated. The Third Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of the defendants. There is a constitutionally protected liberty interest that prohibits the state from continuing to house inmates in solitary confinement on death row after they have been granted resentencing hearings, without meaningful review of the continuing placement, however that principle was not previously clearly established, so prison officials are entitled to qualified immunity. The court noted scientific consensus concerning the harms of solitary confinement and recent precedent involving non-death row solitary confinement. View "Williams v. Secretary Pennsylvania Department of Corrections" on Justia Law

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An informant told a Pennsylvania State Trooper that Steiner, a convicted felon, was staying in a camper on the informant’s property and had a sawed-off shotgun, which Steiner called a “cop killer.” The officer obtained a search warrant and told the informant to drive Steiner to a gas station, where officers would arrest Steiner on a warrant that had issued for Steiner’s failure to appear on an unrelated sexual assault charge. Executing the warrant, police seized a shotgun and ammunition. The informant stated that he had seen missing pieces of the shotgun at Steiner's home; police obtained another warrant for that home, where they found those parts and more ammunition. Steiner was convicted as a felon-in-possession of ammunition, 18 U.S.C. 922(g), and sentenced to an 87-month prison term. The Third Circuit affirmed, upholding admission of the evidence related to the sexual assault warrant and the court’s failure to instruct the jury that it was required to reach a unanimous verdict. Following remand by the Supreme Court, for reconsideration under its 2016 decision, Mathis v. United States, concerning predicate offenses and the “categorical approach,” the Third Circuit affirmed the conviction as unaffected by Mathis, but vacated the sentence. The district court used a 1993 Pennsylvania burglary conviction as a predicate “crime of violence” under the Sentencing Guidelines, which was plain error; Steiner’s Guidelines range should not have been enhanced. View "United States v. Steiner" on Justia Law
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Doe was president and “sole proprietor” of Company A, but a 2008 document purports to memorialize Doe’s sale of all shares to Company B for $10,000. Numerous filings and tax documents suggested that Doe maintained control and ownership of Company A after the transfer. Multiple individuals have sued Doe and his businesses in state courts. Doe and the companies were investigated by a federal grand jury. The government obtained access to Doe’s email. Doe filed an interlocutory appeal to prevent its disclosure. While the appeal was pending, the district court granted permission to present the email to the grand jury, finding that although the email was protected by the work product privilege, the crime-fraud exception applied; in 2016, the grand jury returned an indictment, charging conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering. The Third Circuit initially dismissed an interlocutory appeal, but, on rehearing, reversed, concluding that, while the grand jury investigation continues, it retains jurisdiction, and that the crime-fraud exception did not apply. The court stripped an attorney’s work product of confidentiality based on evidence suggesting only that the client had thought about using that product to facilitate fraud, not that the client had actually done so. An actual act to further the fraud is required before attorney work product loses its confidentiality. View "In re: Grand Jury Matter #3" on Justia Law

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Coleman was tried with others for his involvement in a 1989 gang-related shooting in a restaurant. The trial included 76 prosecution witnesses, only one of whom testified as to Coleman’s involvement. Coleman was convicted of first-degree murder, two counts of aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, and possession of an instrument of a crime, but acquitted of violating the Pennsylvania Corrupt Organizations Act (PCOA). Two years after Coleman’s convictions became final, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held (Besch) that PCOA did not apply to an individual’s participation in a wholly illegitimate enterprise. Under Besch. Coleman could not have been charged with a PCOA violation because the gang was wholly illegitimate. Coleman failed to raise Besch when he twice, unsuccessfully, sought state post-conviction relief, alleging ineffective assistance of counsel. In 2014, Coleman sought federal habeas relief, arguing that he was denied due process because the evidence introduced against his codefendants was unfairly imputed to him. He asserted that his claim should be considered under the fundamental miscarriage of justice exception to the time limit imposed by the AntiTerrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and principles of equitable tolling. The district court dismissed. The Third Circuit affirmed. Coleman cannot satisfy the actual innocence requirement of the fundamental miscarriage of justice exception to AEDPA View "Coleman v. Superintendent Greene SCI" on Justia Law
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In 1996, Gardner and others were convicted of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance, conspiracy to commit murder, murder in aid of racketeering, carjacking resulting in death, and using and carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence causing death. Gardner was sentenced to concurrent terms of life imprisonment on each count and 120 months on Count 4. The Fourth Circuit affirmed on direct appeal and, later, denial of his petition under 28 U.S.C. 2255, asserting ineffective assistance of counsel. In 2014, Gardner sought habeas relief under 28 U.S.C. 2241, citing the Supreme Court’s intervening “Alleyne” holding that “[a]ny fact that, by law, increases the [mandatory minimum] penalty for a crime is an ‘element’ that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.” The district court dismissed, finding that Gardner’s claims should have been raised in a section 2255 motion in the court that sentenced him. The Third Circuit affirmed, noting section 2241’s limited scope. Alleyne simply extended the logic of Apprendi to mandatory minimums for criminal sentences; neither makes previously criminal conduct noncriminal. Because section 2255 is not inadequate or ineffective to raise an Apprendi argument, it is not inadequate or ineffective to raise an Alleyne argument. View "Gardner v. Warden Lewisburg USP" on Justia Law